Small-town values propel big-time business success

Dad and daughter

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Randy Sitzman is running the home office of First Financial Equity Corp. in Arizona these days, but he recently visited the Billings branch of the business, managed his daughter, Rachel Sitzman Bonner.

Randy Sitzman is not one for bragging.

Left to his own devices, he probably wouldn’t have gone out looking for publicity when the big news broke last month—that he and two other managers for the First Financial Equity Corp. were buying out the founder of the corporation.

That made Sitzman, a farm kid from Park City, a one-third owner of the second-largest independent investor advisory firm in Arizona, and among the larger such firms in the United States. Not only that, but with Sitzman now managing First Financial’s home office in Scottsdale, Ariz., his 34-year-old daughter, Rachel Sitzman Bonner, is managing the Billings office.

These accomplishments were brought to the attention of Last Best News by Mark Kennedy, a broker for the firm and a former Billings City Council member.

“The city of Billings, the state of Montana, need to know about this,” Kennedy said.

Sitzman, when he did finally sit down with Last Best News to talk about it all, thought it over for a bit, slowly nodded his head and said, “Yeah, I guess it is a big deal.”

What’s even more important for Sitzman is why he decided to sign on with First Financial back in 2008.

That year, he said, when he paid his first visit to Scottsdale to meet with George Fischer, the founder of First Financial, “It really took me back to an era in business that I thought had disappeared.”

Sitzman said that he and the other two managers who are buying First Financial, Jeff Graves and Robert Spicer, “came to this firm because we liked the culture, the small, family atmosphere.”

“That was the most important thing to him,” Rachel said, “that you could come in and enjoy your job, and we could pass that onto our clients.”

The good news for everybody else, Kennedy said, was that Fischer’s decision to sell his business to Sitzman, Graves and Spicer “tells us we’re going to remain pretty much as we are.”

Sitzman grew up with three brothers and a sister outside Park City on a farm started by their great-grandparents. Sitzman said their father didn’t encourage any of his children to go into farming, stressing instead the need for education, and all four of them would graduate from Montana State University.

Sitzman earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and did a year of graduate work in business administration. He had thought of going into law, he said, but “then I saw how much those guys had to read and study, and I decided I wasn’t that much of a bookworm.”

His first job after college was selling life insurance. The insurance business didn’t interest him much, but he realized he enjoyed sales, so his next job was selling electronics, eventually becoming a rep for a manufacturer of consumer electronics.

He stuck with that until his early 30s, when he knew he’d better decide what he really wanted to do. He settled on financial advising, something that had interested him since high school. He managed to get an interview with Shearson Lehman, he said, and when it came time to take the tests he had to pass to start his new career, “I was just frightened enough that I didn’t fail.”

He spent seven years with Shearson Lehman before being recruited by Dean Witter in the mid-1990s. He stayed with that company for 15 years, 12 of them managing its Billings office. During that time, as Dean Witter morphed into Morgan Stanley, Sitzman went from managing eight brokers in the Billings office to overseeing 35 brokers in Billings, Missoula, Butte and Casper, Wyo.

In 2006 he was sent to Lincoln, Neb., to manage a Morgan Stanley office. One of his hires there was his daughter. She had earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from New School University in New York and then spent seven years in New York as a singer, actor and dancer.

She did well, but eventually she decided she wanted to be closer to her family and wanted “something that challenged me more.” She had worked as a clerk in the Morgan Stanley office in Billings during high school, she said, and her father “always laid out the opportunity to join him any time I wanted to.”

Even so, Sitzman said, he was proud of his daughter’s career in New York, and when she asked to join him at Morgan Stanley, “I was a little skeptical. I was a lot skeptical.” But she spent six months training and taking tests, and when she went to work she discovered, as her father had before her, an aptitude for sales.

Sitzman returned to the Billings office after just a year in Nebraska, taking Rachel with him, and a year later Sitzman made that fateful visit to the First Financial office in Scottsdale. He knew right away that the atmosphere there was what he had been wanting through all his years of success with the bigger firms.

He said he never really considered himself “that guy,” the type of person who could be completely satisfied working for a big corporation. At the First Financial office he saw people who really knew what they were doing and really liked their work.

He had worked with Bob Spicer at Morgan Stanley, and it was Spicer who’d introduced him to Jeff Graves. By the time of Sitzman’s visit to Scottsdale, Spicer had opened a Denver office and Graves a Dallas office for First Financial.

Sitzman said that when he pitched the idea of opening another office, “George might have been a little less excited about Billings.” But it would be an independent office, meaning it would pay all its own expenses, so the burden was on Sitzman to make it work.

On Sept. 2, 2008, he and Rachel turned in their resignations at Morgan Stanley and walked across North 31st Street to open a First Financial office in the TransWestern Two building. Sitzman said Rachel said to him, “What do we do now?”

He told her it was time to find clients, so they started making cold calls—something Sitzman hadn’t done since his first days with Shearson Lehman. He was encouraged when he listened in on his daughter in the office next door.

“I heard her in there and she was better than I was,” he said.

A bigger surprise came when, on that very first day, a Morgan Stanley broker named Jesse Norman, who heard about their new office, called up and asked if he could join them. Sitzman said he was already worried that he might have ruined his daughter’s career, so he didn’t want to endanger anybody else’s.

He urged Norman to consult with his uncle, a broker in Nebraska whom Sitzman knew. The uncle gave Norman his blessing. Within days, they got a call from another broker, Donnell Small, looking for a new job.

Rachel said her father turned to her and said, “Is that what we’re doing? Are we opening a branch?”

Norman and Small are both still with them. They grew to have 12 brokers in Billings and two in a Casper office.

Fischer broached the idea of selling the business to Sitzman, Graves and Spicer about three years ago. “There was a lot of thought put into it on his part,” Sitzman said.

The process speeded up in the past year, and Fischer decided he wanted to complete the transition by Jan. 1, 2017. First Financial now has 250 employees, of whom about 200 are brokers.

Sitzman went down to Scottsdale to manage that office in early September, when Rachel took over managing the Billings office. She is the youngest branch manager in the company and the only woman in that role.

Sitzman said he was always a little tough on Rachel—“I think sometimes you can be more difficult on your kids than others,” he said—but she evidently has no hard feelings.

“He’s really taught me how to listen, how to lead,” she said. “He’s the best teacher and the best mentor I’ve ever had.”

Sitzman said Fischer’s decision to sell to three of his employees kept the business together, as it was. If Fischer had sold to a larger company, Sitzman said, it’s highly unlikely that all 250 employees would have been retained, which he and his partners have done.

Rachel thinks she knows why she and her father have been so successful.

“We never had a business plan,” she said, “which was the best plan we could have had.”

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